Ending the Gay Witch Hunt
From Pambazuka News, Henry Makori calls for an end to the persecution of LGBTI people across Africa which goes beyond laws to a fierce intolerance by society at large.
President Yoweri Museveni has done it. Against widespread expectation raised by his earlier pledge, the Ugandan leader turned around this week and signed into law the contentious Anti-Homosexuality Bill passed last December by a parliament his ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), controls. The bill had been opposed locally and internationally for a record four years, since its introduction to the legislature in 2009.
It is a remarkable coincidence that Museveni’s executive action came in the week Pambazuka News has devoted to a special issue on the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LBGTI) struggles in Africa. Our decision to dedicate a special issue to this subject was informed by the alarming reality that throughout Africa, colonial era laws that criminalised ‘unnatural acts’ are now being reinforced by independent governments, pushed by powerful lobbies, under the pretext that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ and harmful: this despite the fact that the existence of LGBTI persons in Africa since time immemorial is well documented. Colonial legislators would have had no reason to criminalise homosexuality if it is the Europeans who introduced it to the continent.
Beyond repression through harsh laws, there is fierce LGBTI intolerance throughout Africa. Even in countries where the constitution proclaims non-discrimination on whatever grounds, politicians, the priestly class and other self-styled moral police are undeterred in inciting their followers against gays. Homosexual persons have been attacked and killed or injured. Many have been forced into hiding, ostracised by their families, denied employment, have been unable to rent a house, etc. In South Africa the horrific phenomenon of ‘corrective rape’ before killing has been perpetrated by men against lesbians as an alleged ‘cure’ of their sexual orientation. It is impossible to remain silent in the face of this epidemic of hate and violence against innocent people.
And now with the stroke of a pen at a ceremony witnessed by state officials and journalists on Monday, President Museveni has left no one in any doubt about his personal approval of the flaming hate and violence meted to LGBTI persons in Uganda and Africa. Quite poignantly, Museveni’s Uganda is the home of David Kato, the iconic gay rights defender who was brutally murdered on 26 January , 2011. One can only imagine the gleeful smiles on the faces of Kato’s killers and other homophobes. The new law has surely emboldened them.
Uganda’s sweeping Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 is draconian, no question about that. Among other provisions, a person convicted of the offence of homosexuality, which includes touching, faces life in prison. Conviction for same sex marriage earns one life imprisonment. Attempted homosexuality attracts seven years behind bars.
A Ugandan occupying premises where a homosexual affair takes place could be jailed for five years. Directors of media houses and organisations, property owners or bloggers convicted of promoting homosexuality will be jailed for up to seven years. Ugandans abroad can be charged with homosexuality and extradited to face the law at home.
Reading through the new law, one can not escape the impression that a disaster of apocalyptic proportions was unfolding in Uganda solely because of homosexuality, hence the need for such a ruthless legislative action to save the nation. But where is the evidence?
Explaining his decision to assent to the bill, President Museveni did not point to a national catastrophe but instead cast himself as the paragon of African culture and anti-imperialism. It is a tired line of reasoning. ‘It seems the topic of homosexuals was provoked by the arrogant and careless Western groups that are fond of coming into our schools and recruiting young children into homosexuality and lesbianism, just as they carelessly handle other issues concerning Africa,’ he said. Museveni further accused Western organisations of ‘recruiting normal people’ ‘to get money’.
Very well, Mr President. ‘Normal people’ are being recruited into homosexuality for money. Who has complained? What problem does that cause Uganda? Prior to the new law, it was already a crime to be gay in Uganda, the penalty being seven years in prison. Are Ugandan prisons teeming with homosexuals and their foreign recruiters? How many people from the West has Uganda prosecuted for recruiting children into homosexuality?
Scientists from within and outside the country, ‘after exhaustive studies’, had found that no one could be homosexual ‘purely by nature,’ Museveni claimed. Yet the president cited a study done on identical twins in Sweden (Sweden is not part of the West, right?) that showed that 34 percent 5 – 39 percent were homosexual on account of nature and 66 percent were homosexual on account of nurture.
The ‘Scientific statement from the Ministry of Health on homosexuality’, dated 10 February , on which Museveni claimed to have based his decision makes interesting reading. It deserves quoting at length.
‘Homosexual behaviour has existed throughout human history, including Africa’, the statement, signed by 11 top government-appointed Ugandan scientists, affirms. ‘Homosexuality existed in Africa way before the coming of the white man. However, most African cultures controlled sexual practices be they heterosexual or homosexual and never allowed exhibitionist sexual behaviour.’
‘Studies in sexology have shown that sexual phenomena exist on a normal distribution continuum like most human attributes e.g. height – most people are in the middle but others may be taller or shorter. Thus also in sexuality there are spectrum of sexual behaviors. Some people are less fixed in one form of sexuality than others. Thus sexuality is a far more flexible human quality than used to be assumed in the past, demonstrating the biological variability within the human race.’
Significantly, the experts state that, ‘Homosexuality is sexual behaviour (not a disorder) involving sexual attraction to people of the same sex. It is not clear whether this differing physiological response exists at birth or [is] developed after homosexual experience later in life. The conclusion from the current body of scientific evidence is that there is no single gene responsible for homosexuality and there is no anatomical or physiological data that can fully explain its occurrence…In summary, homosexuality has no clear cut cause; several factors are involved which differ from individual to individual. It is not a disease that has a treatment.’
There you have it. But Museveni is not only opposed to homosexuality. At the signing ceremony on Monday, he fulminated against oral sex and public displays of affection, pontificating that ‘Africans are flabbergasted by exhibitionism of sexual acts’. He then advised the nation on the appropriate ‘Ugandan’ way to get intimate. Etc, etc…One could simply dismiss the President of Uganda as being obsessed with sex! Except that his views now have grave implications for gay people’s enjoyment of the fundamental right to personal dignity and the freedoms of expression, belief and association enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda and in international conventions to which Uganda is a state party.
Museveni’s puritanical and anti-imperialist posturing fools no one, of course. First, the truth is that there are – and there have always been – homosexual persons in Uganda, Africa and elsewhere in the world, existing quite independently of Western or other influences – a sexual minority which Museveni’s own experts affirm. Why he and his ilk refuse to accept this reality is beyond reason.
Second, even if homosexuality was a Western influence, so what? What qualifies Museveni and other African elites to determine which cultural borrowings are good or bad, where the matter concerns individual private choices that harm no one?
Third, isn’t it astounding that, in a continent witnessing so much bloodletting caused by fundamentalist groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab who claim to oppose Western influences, parliaments can pass – and presidents assent to – draconian laws on the same grounds?
And fourth, LGBTI persons pose no threat to anyone whatsoever by the mere fact of being gay. A person’s sexual orientation can never be criminal. Punitive laws targeting LGBTI persons are therefore entirely unjust. What problem in society is an anti-gay law supposed to cure? How, for example, would Ugandans benefit from the imprisonment for life, or even the violent death, of a hundred gays?
WHAT HOMOPHOBES ARE UP TO
If homosexuality threatens no one and is a natural phenomenon, why are gays being hunted down everywhere in Africa? One, there is fear of difference, arising from ignorance. There are many persons who have spent all their lives believing in exclusive heterosexuality and who have no knowledge about the existence of other sexual orientations. Their narrow view of sexuality, often based on religion, cannot countenance difference. Two, as veteran Uganda journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo writes, politicians use homophobia as a tool to divert public attention from pressing national issues, or to win support in conservative societies. Three, ultimately the war on homosexuality is about maintaining male dominance in society. Certain articles in this special issue ably argue this point.
And four, there is imperialism, which homophobes claim to be fighting. Behind the anti-gay crusade in Uganda – and many African countries – lurks a powerful American evangelical lobby out to ostensibly protect Christian values and traditional family life in Africa – yet another evidence of the colonial notion of the white man’s burden. Museveni’s wife Janet, who is also a Cabinet minister and an NRM member of parliament, is an ardent evangelical. In the 21st century, Western do-gooders must still paint Africa as the dark continent to justify continued imperialist intervention, in this case disguised as missionary work.
A month before the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill was drafted, three American evangelicals had held a conference in the country on homosexuality. Thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and politicians listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ‘the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ‘to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.’
Uganda’s anti-gay law follows a similar one signed by Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan early last month, to the great jubilation of the Catholic bishops there. These two developments have certainly poured fresh petrol onto the fire of homophobia raging across Africa. There will surely be more attacks on gay people and more egregious violations of their rights with impunity. Harsher legislation or more aggressive enforcement will be demanded in countries where the so-called anti-sodomy laws already exist since the colonial times. Already in Kenya a group of members of parliament have launched a caucus against homosexuality, vowing to ensure strict enforcement of existing laws.
JOIN THE STRUGGLE
It is not all gloom, though. Despite widespread repression, the struggle for LGBTI rights as human rights is gathering pace in Africa as homosexual identifying persons refuse to be silenced. Throngs of enlightened Africans from every village and town should pour out in solidarity. You do not need to be gay to defend the rights of gays to live as free persons, anymore than you need to be a child or parent to champion children’s rights, or disabled to fight stigma and discrimination of disabled persons. Moreover, many heterosexual persons in Africa are going to suffer harassment under the harsh anti-gay laws, as eminent Kenyan scholar Prof Calestous Juma experienced.
In South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped launch Africa’s first gay political party in January called the Democratic Religious Alliance Against Minority Antagonism (DRAAMA). The new party will champion minority human-rights issues the current ruling party, ANC, has failed to address since coming to power twenty years ago. Archbishop Tutu, an indefatigable LGBTI campaigner, has previously stated that he would not go to heaven if God is homophobic. ‘I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven… No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to hell… I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,’ he said.
Archbishop Tutu is not alone. Weeks ago, the Southern Cross, a weekly published by the Catholic Church in Southern Africa, carried a bold editorial condemning homophobic laws in Africa and calling upon the church to speak out in the defence of LGBTI rights. The paper deplored the fact that ‘the church has been silent, in some cases even quietly complicit, in the discourse on new homophobic laws.’
‘The Church cannot sponsor the criminalisation of matters of private morality, and much less the advocacy of human rights. Prejudice and the persecution of homosexuals are in defiance of Catholic doctrine,’ the editorial stated. ‘While the Church’s teachings prevent her from standing with homosexuals on many issues, especially same-sex marriage, she has an obligation, mandated by Christ, to be in solidarity with all those who are unjustly marginalised and persecuted.’
‘African bishops especially ought to speak out, as loudly as they do on same-sex marriage, against the discriminatory legislation and violence directed at homosexuals, many of whom are fellow Catholics. Where is the prophetic voice of the church in condemning the general homophobia in society?’
In Kenya, Rev John Makokha responded to this challenge ten years ago by establishing Other Sheep-Africa, a faith-based organisation to fight religious homophobia. Last year, the organisation won in the ‘Dini’ (Religion/Faith) Category of the Kenya Upinde Awards for promoting dialogue on faith, gender, sex and sexuality. Upinde Awards are organised annually by the yet to be registered National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
The virulent homophobic campaign sweeping Africa must be stopped. It is unacceptable that innocent citizens of independent African nations who should enjoy equal rights and protection under the law are targeted for criminal prosecution or wanton violence, merely because of their sexual orientation. Africans need to understand that homosexual persons are normal human beings who experience their sexuality differently. Any laws, policies, attitudes and practices that criminalise or stoke hate against adults engaging in consensual same sex sexual relationships are irredeemably unjust. Every reasonable person should resist them. Vigorously.
* Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News.